I wish everyone a joyful Thanksgiving, filled with practice opportunities. This is a great time to draw on your Zen training!
Here are some reflections I shared at Inquiry on Tuesday, about the three minds of Thanksgiving.
The mind of abundance: The realization of the richness of this life, and our way of living, that overflows even our capacity to comprehend it. We enjoy a level of comfort and gratification that would have been unimaginable even 100 years ago. We benefit from the abundance our technologies, affluence, medical advances, food distribution, transportation, and education provide for us. We live in a free, if strange country, with many privileges denied to those in other places. We will gather on Thursday, most of us, to celebrate the incredible abundance we enjoy, and to offer thanks for it together. Certainly gratitude is an appropriate response to such bounty, including the bounty of our friends and family. The sense of life overflowing is not dependent on our material circumstances: even a barefoot child or the poorest tribes in Africa can experience it. Here’s a quote from the marvelous book Order Out of Chaos, by Ilya Prigogine, the Nobel-prize winning physicist, and Isabelle Stengers:
The real lesson to be learned from the principle of complementarity, a lesson that can perhaps be transferred to other fields of knowledge, consists in emphasizing the wealth of reality, which overflows any single language, any single logical structure. Each language can express only part of reality. Music, for example, has not been exhausted by any of its realizations, by any style of composition, from Bach to Schönberg.
—Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers
We cannot exhaust the overflowing reality in which we are immersed. It is truly staggering. Even when we try to narrow our scope: focusing only on honeybees, or orchids, or Zen Buddhism, for example, the richness of the reality field staggers us; it is truly incomprehensible. This is the mind of abundance.
The mind of lack: Even in the midst of overwhelming abundance, many people still long for something, filled with a sense of lack. In a survey that asked thousands of people how much income would be enough, would satisfy them, the results were striking: above the barest poverty level, people at every socioeconomic level answered the same: about 20% more than they were making now. Incredible, isn’t it? Our sense of lack may be internal (there is something lacking in me) or it may be external (there is something lacking in my world), or both (what is lacking in me is creating a lack in my world; what is lacking in the world is creating a lack in me).
And certainly even as we celebrate abundance, we are keenly aware of the genuine material circumstances of lack that many people must endure. So there is often some unease at this time of year as well. What about people who struggle in poverty? Or we think, sure our table is overflowing now, but what about retirement: will I have enough then? I’m lonely, I wish I had someone—a lover, a close friend, even a dog— in my life. I need to make more money, I don’t know how I will pay all these bills. I don’t have enough time to do all I need to do. I am missing something…something. Here’s the poetic expression of this mind of lack.
I Want Something Without a Name
I want something without a name - No!
I’m not saying I don’t know what I crave!
I want something without a name, light of foot, even
airborne, all feathers but feathers
detached in the air,
of fine plumage. I want that which
it will not be possible to say
I have had. What envelopes and releases -
not chronologically, but envelopes and releases
all at the same time.
One gesture, small as a man’s. Passing through a liquid
and a solid state, and then an airborne
state, not chronologically, but all at the same time.
A brightness in the eyes without the eyes. No eyes,
no ears, no parts, all opening and closing
at the same time. Both closed and open of no
apparent distance form me. No distance. A hole
with nothing around it. No surroundings. A dive
to and from
not even a pool
not even a plank.
The mind of sufficiency: This mind is hard to describe. It is so simple. I guess you could call such a mind content.
When I started graduate school, I was very frightened. I was a single parent, I was living in graduate student housing, I was teaching and taking classes and working a couple of other jobs, and I had no idea how I would manage. I thought, I wish I was rich. But then I got curious. What is it the rich have that I want? I wondered. I didn’t really want a huge house, or a boat. I was in school, so I didn’t really want to travel or go out for fancy meals. I realized what the rich had that I lacked was this: they didn’t have to worry about having enough money. Oh! I thought, then what I really want is not to have to worry about money. And the truth is, we will have money or not have money as I am going through school, but I could bracket off the worry about it, and just manage the situation. As it turned out, our resources were sufficient and the worry was not necessary to being able to manage them. Sometimes they were more abundant and sometimes they were more scarce. But somehow there was enough.
I think about the student in my class years ago, who struggled with writing, and came for help in office hours. He was desperate to make an A, because his home village in Africa had sold all of their cattle—the entire livelihood of every man, woman, and child in the village—to send him to America to medical school. Or the student who was always a bit late to class, and who confessed that the bus often ran late from his work, where he was a bank manager. He looked about 19 years old. He told me that when he was 14, living in Vietnam, he thought he was going on a vacation with his uncle, but instead, his uncle put him on a train and told him he was headed to the United States. He didn’t know anyone there, but somehow he would find a place to stay. His charge: learn to speak English, get an education, get a good job, and make enough money to bring his entire extended family to the U.S. This he had done. Now he was their sole support.
My students have taught me a great deal about the mind of sufficiency. And my practice has grounded this mind. As we sit in zazen, there is nothing missing, and nothing in excess. Just sitting, we can feel that quality of mind that can rest, not seeking something missing, not exhausted by too much of anything. Of course the mind of abundance and the mind of lack come up, but we can watch them naturally settle into simple ease. This is enough. How simple it is!
About a Boy Stirring Jam
A wooden spoon for stirring jam,
Dripping sweet tar, while in the pan
Plum magma’s bubbles blather.
For someone who can’t grasp the whole
There’s salvation in the remembered detail.
What, back then, did I know about that?
The real, hard as a diamond,
Was to happen in the indefinable
Future, and everything seemed
Only a sign of what was to come. How naïve.
Now I know inattention is an unforgivable sin
And each particle of time has an ultimate dimension.
translated by Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough
As we enter the holidays, we will be exhorted to buy, buy, buy, and we will also be exhorted to think about those who have little or nothing, with charity. We believe we know what we need, what we must have, and worse, we believe we know what others need or want (or should need or want). From the mind of sufficiency, we open to a much more vast and satisfying relation with all beings, and with the whole world. It is the mind of mutuality, of relationality, through which genuine care can be expressed. Even in difficult or trying situations (which we may find ourselves in over the holidays), we can open the profound inquiry in each moment: what is the liberating potential in this situation? What is it that expresses kindness or invites connection? In the mind of abundance we may be too mesmerized by our pleasure and comfort to engage this inquiry; in the mind of lack, we feel too impoverished to. So the mind of sufficiency is a calm, steady, quiet mind, a mind that pays attention to just what is needed, what is enough. And this allows us to respond with what we can offer, generously and joyfully. It may be as simple as a hand on the arm and the ability to be with someone in silence. Our presence is our most abundant gift, and one we can freely and generously share.
So if you have been invited to a Thanksgiving celebration hosted by the parents of the best friends of your son’s wife, as I have, and if it should happen that there is also a requirement to wear a costume with a glitzy drugstore cowboy theme, something not readily available in your wardrobe, remember that you do not need to spend hundreds of dollars on just the right fashion statement, and you also do not need to fret that you can only tie a lame bandanna on a shirt with a pair of jeans. And if, in addition, your son and wife are arriving at midnight of Thanksgiving eve, expecting to somehow to magically manifest costumes from an environment in which every single store will be closed, the complexity multiplies by three. This is only another situation to meet with the mind of sufficiency. Which I hope I can do.